An aerial view showing forest cleared for cattle ranching. © Haroldo Palo, Jr.

IBM, Big Data and Saving the Amazon (the Real Amazon)

Can applied technology and the wisdom of crowds help save the Amazon rainforest?

Yes. That’s why 10 IBM technology and business experts from seven countries are spending a month in Belem, Brazil, helping The Nature Conservancy tackle rampant deforestation. With assistance from a crowdsourcing Web site, they´re recommending key strategy, technology and marketing improvements aimed at making it easier for Brazilian municipalities and landowners to comply with the country´s Forest Code.

The Web site not only reaches out to IBM and Conservancy staff but also to anybody who is interested in helping preserve the rainforest.

How the app helps Brazil monitor forest compliance

Rampant deforestation is, of course, the biggest problem facing Amazon conservation efforts.

And while enforcement of forest laws helps slow the rate of deforestation, local, state and federal land managers still face complicated challenges stopping forest conversion. One of the biggest: Brazil needs a quick, integrated reliable way to establish land-ownership records and monitor land use so that municipalities can enforce the laws to stop illegal deforestation when it happens or, preferably, prevent it from happening in the first place.

To help solve that problem, the Conservancy has developed a cloud-based application called PAM to enable land managers to track and meet their environmental goals, as well as assess how landowners are complying with Brazil’s forest laws.

It’s a pretty straightforward equation: Good monitoring is the key to good enforcement and good enforcement is the key to halting illegal deforestation. And though several Brazilian municipalities have adopted PAM (a Portuguese acronym for Municipal Environmental Portal App), it needs more widespread implementation to have the impact we need.

Enter IBM.

Through the support of the Conservancy’s Latin America Conservation Council, IBM’s non-profit Corporate Services Corps is on the job. They are using their technical and organizational expertise to overcome barriers to adoption and make PAM the most used and most effective land management tool in the country (and maybe one day, the world).

To accomplish that they are:

  • Working out technical solutions to integrate PAM with existing environmental management reporting systems in Brazil. The main reason PAM has not been widely adopted is because the lack of integration meant huge inefficiencies because land managers had to load data in two separate places.
  • Tackling the challenges of remote access to the Internet. Given PAM data is stored in the cloud, reliable access to the Net is absolutely necessary. Which, not surprisingly, can be a significant problem in some of the most remote areas on the planet. The IBM team in Belem sent the question to more than 400,000 of their colleagues to ask who had the best solutions for connectivity in remote areas. The answers that came back from the crowd included a promising project involving solar-powered drones broadcasting wireless.
  • Working on new functionalities, including mobile platforms. PAM has the potential to meet all the data-management needs of Amazonian land managers, from enabling the collection of field-based data to streamlining licensure and conservation plans and payments.

Right now, IBM’s experts have another week to go on this rapid-development project in the Amazon. It’s not your typical conservation story – at least at the Conservancy.

Developers and programmers don’t often figure in the stories we tell about our work, and maybe that should change.

The challenges we face today clearly require imagination, innovation and, in this case, an epic knowledge of programming languages and database integrations. So we offer our thanks and admiration to the 10 highly skilled IBM professionals who even now are working in a small office in Belem, Brazil — staring at computer screens and helping to save a little more of the Amazon with every stroke of a key.

Opinions expressed on TALK and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.

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